The Sisters

THERE WAS NO hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

“No, I wouldn't say he was exactly…but there was something queer… there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion…”

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

“I have my own theory about it,” he said. “I think it was one of those… peculiar cases…But it's hard to say…”

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:

“Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear.”

“Who?” said I.

“Father Flynn.”

“Is he dead?”

“Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house.”

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

“The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him.”

“God have mercy on his soul,” said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

“I wouldn't like children of mine,” he said, “to have too much to say to a man like that.”

“How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?” asked my aunt.

“What I mean is,” said old Cotter, “it's bad for children. My idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be…Am I right, Jack?”

“That's my principle, too,” said my uncle. “Let him learn to box his corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that's what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large…Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that leg mutton,” he added to my aunt.

“No, no, not for me,” said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.

“But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr. Cotter?” she asked.

“It's bad for children,” said old Cotter, “because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect…”

I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!

It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter for alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.

The next morning after breakfast I went down to look at the little house in Great Britain Street. It was an unassuming shop, registered under the vague name of Drapery. The Drapery consisted mainly of children's bootees and umbrellas; and on ordinary days a notice used to hang in the window, saying: Umbrellas Re-covered. No notice was visible now for the shutters were up. A crape bouquet was tied to the doorknocker with ribbon. Two poor women and a telegram boy were reading the card pinned on the crape. I also approached and read:

July 1st, 1895

The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine's Church,

Meath Street), aged sixty-five years.

R. I. P.

The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead and I was disturbed to find myself at check. Had he not been dead I would have gone into the little dark room behind the shop to find him sitting in his arm-chair by the fire, nearly smothered in his

great-coat. Perhaps my aunt would have given me a packet of High Toast for him and this present would have roused him from his stupefied doze. It was always I who emptied the packet into his black snuff-box for his hands trembled too much to allow him to do this without spilling half the snuff about the floor. Even as he raised his large trembling hand to his nose little clouds of smoke dribbled through his fingers over the front of his coat. It may have been these constant showers of snuff which gave his ancient priestly garments their green faded look for the red handkerchief, blackened, as it always was, with the snuff-stains of a week, with which he tried to brush away the fallen grains, was quite inefficacious.

I wished to go in and look at him but I had not the courage to knock. I walked away slowly along the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows as I went. I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death. I wondered at this for, as my uncle had said the night before, he had taught me a great deal. He had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest. Sometimes he had amused himself by putting difficult questions to me, asking me what one should do in certain circumstances or whether such and such sins were mortal or venial or only imperfections. His questions showed me how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had always regarded as the simplest acts. The duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever found in himself the courage to undertake them; and I was not surprised when he told me that the fathers of the Church had written books as thick as the Post Office Directory and as closely printed as the law notices in the newspaper, elucidating all these intricate questions. Often when I thought of this I could make no answer or only a very foolish and halting one upon which he used to smile and nod his head twice or thrice. Sometimes he used to put me through the responses of the Mass which he had made me learn by heart; and, as I pattered, he used to smile pensively and nod his head, now and then pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately. When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip—a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well.

As I walked along in the sun I remembered old Cotter's words and tried to remember what had happened afterwards in the dream. I remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange—in Persia, I thought…But I could not remember the end of the dream.

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of mourning. It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds. Nannie received us in the hall; and, as it would have been unseemly to have shouted at her, my aunt shook hands with her for all. The old woman pointed upwards interrogatively and, on my aunt's nodding, proceeded to toil up the narrow staircase before us, her bowed head being scarcely above the level of the banister-rail. At the first landing she stopped and beckoned us forward encouragingly towards the open door of the dead-room. My aunt went in and the old woman, seeing that I hesitated to enter, began to beckon to me again repeatedly with her hand.

I went in on tiptoe. The room through the lace end of the blind was suffused with dusky golden light amid which the candles looked like pale thin flames. He had been coffined. Nannie gave the lead and we three knelt down at the foot of the bed. I pretended to pray but I could not gather my thoughts because the old woman's mutterings distracted me. I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side. The fancy came to me that the old priest was smiling as he lay there in his coffin.

But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I saw that he was not smiling. There he lay, solemn and copious, vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice. His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur. There was a heavy odour in the room—the flowers.

We crossed ourselves and came away. In the little room downstairs we found Eliza seated in his arm-chair in state. I groped my way towards my usual chair in the corner while Nannie went to the sideboard and brought out a decanter of sherry and some wine-glasses. She set these on the table and invited us to take a little glass of wine. Then, at her sister's bidding, she filled out the sherry into the glasses and passed them to us. She pressed me to take some cream crackers also but I declined because I thought I would make too much noise eating them. She seemed to be somewhat disappointed at my refusal and went over quietly to the sofa where she sat down behind her sister. No one spoke: we all gazed at the empty fireplace.

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

“Ah, well, he's gone to a better world.”

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

“Did he…peacefully?” she asked.

“Oh, quite peacefully, ma'am,” said Eliza. “You couldn't tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.”

“And everything…?”

“Father O'Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.”

“He knew then?”

“He was quite resigned.”

“He looks quite resigned,” said my aunt.

“That's what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he'd make such a beautiful corpse.”

“Yes, indeed,” said my aunt.

She sipped a little more from her glass and said:

“Well, Miss Flynn, at any rate it must be a great comfort for you to know that you did all you could for him. You were both very kind to him, I must say.”

Eliza smoothed her dress over her knees.

“Ah, poor James!” she said. “God knows we done all we could, as poor as we are—we wouldn't see him want anything while he was in it.”

Nannie had leaned her head against the sofa-pillow and seemed about to fall asleep.

“There's poor Nannie,” said Eliza, looking at her, “she's wore out. All the work we had, she and me, getting in the woman to wash him and then laying him out and then the coffin and then arranging about the Mass in the chapel. Only for Father O'Rourke I don't know what we'd done at all. It was him brought us all them flowers and them two candlesticks out of the chapel and wrote out the notice for the Freeman's General and took charge of all the papers for the cemetery and poor James's insurance.”

“Wasn't that good of him?” said my aunt.

Eliza closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.

“Ah, there's no friends like the old friends,” she said, “when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust.”

“Indeed, that's true,” said my aunt. “And I'm sure now that he's gone to his eternal reward he won't forget you and all your kindness to him.”

“Ah, poor James!” said Eliza. “He was no great trouble to us. You wouldn't hear him in the house any more than now. Still, I know he's gone and all to that…”

“It's when it's all over that you'll miss him,” said my aunt.

“I know that,” said Eliza. “I won't be bringing him in his cup of beef-tea any more, nor you, ma'am, sending him his snuff. Ah, poor James!”

She stopped, as if she were communing with the past and then said shrewdly:

“Mind you, I noticed there was something queer coming over him latterly. Whenever I'd bring in his soup to him there I'd find him with his breviary fallen to the floor, lying back in the chair and his mouth open.”

She laid a finger against her nose and frowned: then she continued:

“But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer was over he'd go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old house again where we were all born down in Irishtown and take me and Nannie with him. If we could only get one of them new-fangled carriages that makes no noise that Father O'Rourke told him about, them with the rheumatic wheels, for the day cheap—he said, at Johnny Rush's over the way there and drive out the three of us together of a Sunday evening. He had his mind set on that…Poor James!”

“The Lord have mercy on his soul!” said my aunt.

Eliza took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. Then she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the empty grate for some time without speaking.

“He was too scrupulous always,” she said. “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”

“Yes,” said my aunt. “He was a disappointed man. You could see that.”

A silence took possession of the little room and, under cover of it, I approached the table and tasted my sherry and then returned quietly to my chair in the corner. Eliza seemed to have fallen into a deep revery. We waited respectfully for her to break the silence: and after a long pause she said slowly:

“It was that chalice he broke…That was the beginning of it. Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still…They say it was the boy's fault. But poor James was so nervous, God be merciful to him!”

“And was that it?” said my aunt. “I heard something…”

Eliza nodded.

“That affected his mind,” she said. “After that he began to mope by himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself. So one night he was wanted for to go on a call and they couldn't find him anywhere. They looked high up and low down; and still they couldn't see a sight of him anywhere. So then the clerk suggested to try the chapel. So then they got the keys and opened the chapel and the clerk and Father O'Rourke and another priest that was there brought in a light for to look for him…And what do you think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself?”

She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.

Eliza resumed:

“Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself…So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him…”


  1. We quickly learn that Eliza is the sister of the now-departed Father Flynn, whose first name we also soon learn is James. It's clear that she had been taking care of Father Flynn in his old age and illness—likely after his first stroke.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This detail shows us that Father Flynn and his sister Eliza were born in Irishtown, a lower-class district in Dublin south of the river Liffey. This makes his acceptance into the Irish College of Rome more impressive considering the circumstances of his upbringing.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. While this word can mean "recently," in this context it also refers to the later stages in Father Flynn's life. How recently Eliza noticed this "something queer" coming over Father Flynn, then, is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Context suggests that it is a recent occurrence, but the mystery surrounding Father Flynn's life suggests that his odd behavior may have been happening for a while.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. This is type of beef broth. Beef-tea is a juice made from beef that has been boiled in water, and it has fairly strong associations with the ill and the feeble.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. This "papers" here refer to Father Flynn's right to a grave in a cemetery plot and also to an insurance policy for funeral and burial costs. This detail suggests a characteristic preoccupation with dignified and impressive funeral rites that many of the middle-class Irish had at the time. A priest like Father Flynn, while of lower-class origins yet trained at the Irish College in Rome, might have been expected to be concerned about such matters.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The "notice" here means a notification of death to be published in the daily national newspaper in Dublin—The Freeman's General and National Press. This newspaper was notable for its favorable reports on church-related matters, including funerals, and served as a vehicle for middle-class Catholic nationalist opinion.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. This question expresses concern over whether or not Father Flynn received his last rites, known as Extreme Unction, before his death. The question itself also indicates the possibility of doubt, which adds to the mystery surrounding him in this story. If the rite's were not administered, that would have meant that Father Flynn had committed a grievous transgression against the faith.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. In Roman Catholic tradition, crossing oneself involves making a sign of the cross upon one's person to symbolize a private prayer for God's favor. Additionally, the sign is a recognition and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ's sacrifice.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Joyce's choice of "truculent" here to describe the dead priest's face has interesting connotations. The word itself means "aggressively defiant," which gives the impression that the corpse has a rather mean-spirited or combative look on its face. Usually the dead are described as lying peacefully. Perhaps Joyce is signaling that Father Flynn died with some unresolved issue or problem.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. A chalice is a vessel similar to a large cup that is used in Mass for holding wine. The wine is then consecrated before being used for communion. The chalice must be made of gold or silver, or the lip of the cup should be silver or gold-lined. For the vessel to become a sacred chalice, a bishop must consecrate it.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. In the Roman Catholic Church, this is a raised table used for the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. The table must also have an altar stone that has been blessed by a bishop placed on top of it. While Mass may occur in a location outside a church, by tradition Mass cannot happen without an altar or an altar stone.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The former name of today's Iran, Persia and other parts of the Middle East (called the Orient in the 19th century) were associated with romance and mystery, as well as sensuality and exoticism.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Part of Mass, the responses are the phrases, verses, or words that the congregation or choir says in reply to the priest leading the service. The inclusion of responses allows the faithful to more actively participate in the service rather than simply sit and listen to their priest.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. Similar to phone books and other directories, this Post Office Directory is an annual Dublin publication giving city addresses and the names of residents. The priest used this example as a comparison for the amount of text the fathers of the Church wrote because it was likely the most accessible comparison for the young boy to comprehend.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes certain Christian writers from the first seven centuries with this designation because their works helped form the modern church. In this sense then, "fathers" means something similar to "founders," much in the same way that the United States refers to its "founding fathers."

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. "The confessional" is a place used by Catholic priests to hear the confessions of the faithful. The physical structure traditionally has two compartments separated by a screen. Duly ordained priests have an obligation of complete confidentiality regarding the confession of sins that the faithful relate to them.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. In contrast to a mortal sin, a venial sin is an offense against God that is considered a lighter matter or one performed without the full consent of the sinner. Venial sins do not destroy the faithful's right to eternal happiness, and so the difference between the two is obviously very important.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. In the Roman Catholic doctrine, a sin that is considered mortal is one that represents a morally bad human act. If such acts are taken willfully with full consent on the part of the individual performing the act, then the sinner is deserving of eternal punishment. For devoted Catholics, dying in mortal sin without absolution from a priest is a fate feared above all others.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Similar to the different types of Masses that occur throughout the liturgical year, the kinds of outer garments that the priests wear change according to the type of Mass performed and represent different, symbolic colors of the faith.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. In the Roman Catholic Church, Mass is the principle act of worship. The acts of Jesus at the Last Supper, breaking bread and drinking wine, are reproduced to make his sacrifice feel more present. Many different Masses occur throughout different times of the liturgical year, and it is likely these differences and intricacies that Father Flynn explained to the young boy.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. Father Flynn's interest in telling the narrator stories about Napoleon Bonaparte likely are due to Napoleon's closing of the Irish college in Rome in 1798. Other tales of Napoleon in Ireland included the French emperor stating that the day of his first communion in church was the happiest day of his life.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Catacombs are places where the dead are buried below ground. These subterranean places consist of galleries with recesses in the walls for tombs. In addition to a place for the dead, the first and second centuries, the Roman catacombs were a place for early Christian to escape religious persecution.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. Since Latin is a dead language, there are different approaches to pronouncing it. Father Flynn was likely an advocate of the Roman method of pronunciation, a 19th-century attempt to pronounce Latin as the influential Roman philosopher and politician Cicero might have in the 1st century BCE. Notably, it differed in pronunciation from medieval church Latin as well as the English method taught in most of Great Britain.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. This refers to an Irish seminary founded in 1628. During the 19th century, only the most promising of the Irish ordinands (those preparing to be ordained as priests into the Catholic Church) were educated there.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. "Inefficacious" means something that does not produce a desired effect. So, the priest's handkerchief is not only so blackened with snuff-stains that it failed to help keep his garments clean, but it also possibly contributed to his dirty garments.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. This initialism stands for the Latin term Requiescat In Pacem, which translates to Rest In Peace—a common and brief prayer for the dead.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. This Roman Catholic church in Meath Street in central Dublin is located to the south of the river Liffey, in a more socially acceptable part of the city. However, there were still many poor parishioners living in the slum conditions around the church.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  28. "Crape" or "crepe" is a thin silk or cotton cloth with small wrinkles all over its surface. A crape bouquet could either be flowers wrapped in this material or the entire bouquet, flowers and all, could be made from this material.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  29. July 1st is significant in two ways: First, Father Flynn dies on the Church Feast of the Most Precious Blood. Second, July 1st was also the date of the Battle of the Boyne in which Catholic Ireland was defeated by William Prince of Orange and the subsequent King William the Third of England.
    The latter historical example relates to Dubliners and the motif of paralysis running throughout the lives of the people in Joyce's short stories. The defeat of the Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne was a traumatizing event in Irish history. Their defeat eventually led to the establishment of English Protestant Ascendancy, resulting in more oppression of the Catholic faith. July 1st, with all its emotional and historical connotations, gives the story a historical dimension that shows how England is at fault for much of the physical and mental paralysis that the Irish face.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  30. Notice here the importance of the hyphen. While "re-covered" means to put a new cover or covering on something, "recover" can mean to get something back again.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  31. The word "drapery" means cloth coverings that hang in loose folds, long curtains, and even artistic arrangements of clothing. The name of the store then suggests the kinds of goods it deals in, which are dry goods and clothes.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  32. An alternative spelling of "booties," a "bootee" typically means a soft, small shoe made for babies or very small children. However, any soft, sock-like shoe can also be considered a bootee.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  33. A street in North Central Dublin, Great Britain Street is north of the river Liffey in a part of the city that housed many of the city's poor. It is now known as Parnell Street.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  34. A "nipper" is an informal, or slang, word for a young child—boys in particular. The word has many other meanings, and surrounding context is vital to understanding the intended meaning.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  35. A Rosicrucian is a member of a fraternity of religious mystics which traces its origins to ancient Egypt by way of the likely fictitious 15th-century German monk Father Christian Rosenkreutz. The 19th century had a revival of interest in mysticism and occult activity when many considered conventional church wisdom unsatisfactory.
    The uncle is making a humorous and likely derisive comment on the boy's interests in the mysteries of religion. The uncle likely considers the boy's association with Father Flynn not very healthy for a young boy, preferring him to associate with other youths outside and to "take exercise."

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  36. This line contains two meanings. First, it could mean that Father Flynn had hopes that the young boy would follow him into the priesthood one day. Second, it is also an idiomatic phrase derived from Irish that means had great esteem or respect for the boy.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  37. This phrase refers to the process of distilling whiskey. "Faints" is the term for impure and/or weak spirits that occur towards the end of the distilling process. "Worms" is the term for the spiral condensing tubes used in the process of distilling liquor.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  38. Euclid was an Alexandrian Greek who studied geometry. By "the Euclid," the narrator here refers to Euclid's work Elements, a treatise on geometry.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  39. This is the name of a particular kid of oatmeal porridge that originated in Ireland and is prepared by being boiled in water or milk and then stirred.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor